Free short stories writing course - Writing dialogue title image

Free Short Story Writing Course – Dialogue

Creative Writing, Free Writing Course

Writing dialogue is fun and a great way to build your characters and create narrative tension.

How people speak is a characteristic of the person speaking it and how they feel. Is your character antisocial, confident or shy? Are they feeling grumpy, happy or sad? An antisocial character who is feeling grumpy will speak differently when they are happy (think of Scrooge in Dickens’, A Christmas Carol).

Dialogue builds narrative tension.

“Oh my god, the ship is sinking.”

A bit extreme maybe but you get the point.

Or the classic horror film line (remember to avoid cliches like this).

“Did you hear that?”

“It’s nothing, just the wind. Go back to sleep.”

“No, I definitely heard something.”

Good dialogue is often indirect. People don’t always say what they mean and don’t always mean what they say. A lot of the things we mean are implicit, not directly said.

Remember – people don’t listen. They will often reply to a question with another question or answer a question which was not asked. Is your character distracted, thinking about something else or trying to avoid answering? It will affect what they say and how they say it.

A lot of what we say is unspoken. Learn how to write about your characters’ expressions and their body language. People watch and make notes (Making Notes).

Laying It Out

The conventional format when writing dialogue is to write the spoken words inside speech marks. These can either be “ or ‘. (I preferred ‘ since it looks cleaner but so many publishers asked me to change it to ” to fit their house style I gave up and use ” now).

You can experiment, use dashes or no punctuation at all. Conventional speech marks are a subliminal code that tells the reader someone is speaking. If you choose a different format this may confuse your reader and make your work difficult to read for the casual reader.

Punctuation is placed within the speech marks.

“It’s nice here,” he said.

“What time is it?” Arthur asked.

When the next person speaks start a new line. Speech is usually indented.

Speech is usually followed by a reporting clause which tells us who spoke. He said, she said or (character’s name) said is fine but gets a bit repetitive – you can omit the reported clause when the conversation is underway. Think about alternatives to said – asked, shouted, muttered, grumbled.

If one of your characters is addressing the other it is clear who is speaking so there is no need for he or she said. Here the hotel receptionist is speaking to Arthur in The Butterfly Effect.

“Breakfast is served in the garden room, sir.”

“Which is?” (Arthur asked is not in the original as the reader already knows it is a conversation between Arthur and the receptionist))

“Through the green doors marked garden room sir.”

Change Your Reporting Clause to an Action

Following or preceding the speech with an action a character does avoids having to use he said and she said.

Read the dialogue at the beginning of the Butterfly Effect

Arthur raised his voice slightly. “Are you here on business or on holiday?”

“I came here to work.” The man still did not look up.

“Oh,” Arthur said. (I could have added an action here but it is a short response so Arthur said keeps the dialogue flowing).

“Because it’s quiet.” The man stopped typing.

Good dialogue should flow, if you get it right your readers will be able to understand who is speaking when and be able to hear the intonation in your characters’ voices and picture their expressions. They may also pick up clues to the subtext of what characters are saying; if it advances the plot of the story as well you have scored a hat trick.

All Lessons

Read my short stories and poetry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *